380 hours per month: in China, new anger over the professional expectations of internet giants

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Workers are on duty at the headquarters of Pinduoduo, an e-commerce platform, in Shanghai on July 25, 2018.

The Associated Press

The anger of a younger generation grappling with Chinese high-tech companies’ demands in the workplace is burning again, after a recently sacked employee revealed that workers numbered as many as 380 hours per month at an e-commerce giant where two employees recently died. – one by suicide.

What is happening amounts to “slavery of the smartest group of people in China,” said Wang Taixu, the pseudonym of a former front-end engineer in Pinduoduo who was fired after posting a photo of a employee taken from the company’s headquarters in Shanghai. in an ambulance.

In a social media video viewed nearly 50 million times in less than 24 hours, Wang describes working regularly after midnight in an office without sufficient toilets and with sometimes rotten food. Many employees were required to log 300 hours per month, he said, and managers in the grocery division were demanding 380 hours per month. (A typical 40-hour workweek equals less than 200 hours per month.) Pinduoduo, one of China’s largest online shopping platforms, did not directly dispute these numbers and said it does not was unable to provide an average of working hours.

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“To use one phrase to describe this business, it doesn’t care about workers like all internet companies in China,” Wang said in his video.

In response, Pinduoduo accused Mr. Wang of expressing “extreme emotions” that could threaten his colleagues. The company said it will provide psychological services to its workforce of 7,000 after one of its engineers lost 27 floors when his parents’ apartment building died several days ago. A medical examiner said it was a suicide.

What’s going on at the company has international implications, as Pinduoduo is listed on the Nasdaq Stock Exchange and was founded by Huang Zheng, a former Google engineer who trained in the United States.

But it is also the latest outcry from a generation crunching under the intense demands of the workplace, even as Chinese leaders tout the creation of a “moderately prosperous society.”

For the past two years, university students have used Marxist thought to criticize factory conditions, lament the overwhelming demands of delivery drivers, and denounce “996,” the 9 am to 9 pm, six day program. per week. famous by telecommunications giant Huawei.

“There is growing discontent with excessive demands by employers, especially in the tech sector, on workers,” said Geoffrey Crothall, communications director of the China Labor Bulletin, a research and advocacy group dedicated to workers’ rights in China. “It is somewhat reminiscent of the hours of work workers had to endure ten years ago, during the low-end manufacturing boom in China.

These conditions gained worldwide attention in 2010, when 18 workers attempted suicide and 14 died at iPhone maker Foxconn.

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Not much has changed in the decade since, Mr Crothall said. “The administrative penalties the government can impose are very limited and powerful employers can simply ignore them.”

Nonetheless, Chinese netizens lashed out at Pinduoduo, calling him Foxconn for the e-commerce era after the employee died by suicide, who joined the company on July 8, 2020, as an engineer. in technological development. Pinduoduo said in a statement he was “deeply sorry” and was waiting for local authorities to complete an investigation.

It was the second recent death of a Pinduoduo employee. On December 29, Zhang Moufei, a 22-year-old worker from the company’s vegetable gardening group, passed away suddenly after finishing his early morning shift.

Shanghai labor authorities launched an investigation into Pinduoduo, which sparked an uproar when one of the company’s official social media accounts posted a ridiculed statement: “Look at those below. [of society]. Which of them doesn’t trade his life for money? The company apologized for what it said was an unapproved comment, saying instead of Ms. Zhang, “We love you and miss you deeply.”

All the while, Mr. Wang was considering his own time at the company. Internet publications distributed by Pinduoduo include one in which Mr. Wang, writing under an account name he believed to be anonymous, said he wanted the company to “die right away.” This language amounts to a malicious violation of codes of conduct in the workplace, said Pinduoduo.

Mr. Wang, however, said he was asked to resign shortly after posting a photo of an employee placed in an ambulance last week. He titled it “a second Pinduoduo fighter fell. The company said the worker had had bowel problems and had returned to work.

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But in the video he posted after his dismissal, Mr. Wang commented on the irony of workers lining up for jobs at the company even as an employee was pulled on their backs. “I don’t think the world is supposed to be like this,” he says.

He vowed to challenge his dismissal through labor arbitration, although he admitted his chances of success were slim.

Yet his description of working conditions in Pinduoduo resonated widely. For workers nationwide, “the root cause is that there is no protection for us,” said Zeng Meng, a former Huawei worker who clashed with the company after disputing severance pay. which did not include an end-of-year bonus. Although Chinese labor laws regulate working hours, these laws are rarely enforced and regularly overlooked.

The adoption of 996 by the internet giants reflects extreme neglect of labor regulations, said a labor rights monitor at the southern high-tech center of Shenzhen. The Globe and Mail does not identify him because local authorities told him not to speak to foreign media. Shenzhen alone has tens of thousands of labor disputes every year, but society as a whole doesn’t really care about workers’ rights, he said.

Any union in China must be affiliated with the Communist Party-backed China Federation of Trade Unions, which has been criticized for not doing too much to protect workers.

Although the virtues of hard work have long been celebrated in China, Zeng compared the 300 hours per month expected at Pinduoduo with the lesser demands placed on his own parents, who worked in less efficient state-owned companies but treated their employees. more humanely. His father once came to visit him while he was working at Huawei. “He couldn’t believe what time I got home,” said Mr. Zeng, who has not found a new job for two and a half years since his dismissal.

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“The Chinese government calls itself the Communist Party, claiming that it represents the pioneers of labor, the working class and the farmers,” he said. “But what we’re seeing is that the courts, police, and legislative departments are only protecting the interests of Big Tech. They don’t care about the working class.

He is not the only one to turn to Marxist language to express his anger. Li Yichen, 21, a statistics student in his final year of college, saw his classmates take jobs at companies that demand long hours with little overtime pay. He hopes to avoid this fate.

“‘Exploitation’ and ‘capitalist’ are terms that disgusted me,” he said. “But now I think it’s very appropriate to use these words to describe big internet companies that stress the importance of technology, capital, and management – but don’t care about basic morality.

With a report from Alexandra Li

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